A couple of years ago in PDN’s Money issue, we ran a feature entitled “The $3,000 Studio,” where we spent fictitious photo bucks to try to outfit an entire studio on a limited budget. Of course, by the time we were done “buying” our used cameras and lenses on eBay and other places, we had only a couple hundred dollars left for studio lighting gear. (Gotta work on that self-control.)
I sure wish we had something like the Adorama Flashpoint II 620M Portrait Wedding Monolight kit to tempt us back then. This portable, low-budget kit is aimed at wedding photographers but it’s well suited for anyone who needs a basic yet solid, all-in-one lighting solution for only a little bit of bread.
Even better for the mobile photographer—and who isn’t a “mobile” photographer these days?—the Flashpoint II lighting kit can be powered purely by the included battery packs, letting you bring the entire rig onto the street, out in the woods, or down to the beach. Neat-o torpedo.
I recently shot with this system with my occasional co-tester David DuPuy (www.daviddupuyphotography.com) who runs his studio out of his apartment in New York City’s East Village. David’s the guy I jokingly refer to as “The Frugal Photographer” since he always seems to know how to do more with less. (I consulted David for “The $3,000 Studio” piece.)
As I expected, David was psyched to try out the Flashpoint II kit, which includes two monolights; two battery packs; two ten-foot, air-cushioned light stands; two 40-inch white umbrellas; a snoot to narrow the light beam, and a case to carry it all in. The total price? Just $729 for the whole shebang. (Some compact cameras will cost you more than that.)
We shot with the kit both plugged into the wall in his studio and on the fly using the battery packs. Here’s what we thought of this very frugal, portable lighting solution.
As stated above, there are quite a few parts to the Adorama’s Flashpoint II 320M kit despite the relatively low price. And our test gear for the kit arrived as separate parts, in separate boxes, which was somewhat inconvenient.
Of course, Adorama is mainly known as a retail operation—both the brick-and-mortar store in New York City and the Web site—and not as a manufacturer, so it’s understandable they would ship the individual pieces and not the kit as a whole. It’s an awful lot of boxes though—and an awful lot of packing slips and product manifests etc.—so a recommendation would be to ship everything together in a more organized fashion. That’s a minor quibble.
Speaking of minor quibbles, here’s one more: The bag that comes as part of the kit just barely fits everything in. (Hey, there’s a lot of stuff!) On the bright side, like everything that ships as part of the set-up, the bag is surprisingly high quality, given the overall price. It’s made from high-grade nylon with moveable partitions inside and a wraparound strap for carrying big items. Inside, there are three soft dividers and a soft polymer floor. Double zippers give you a wide opening for loading everything in. Very nice.
But like I said, that’s kind of the deal with this kit. You’re surprised at how much bang you get for your buck.
MONO A MONO
The centerpiece of the kit are the two 620M monolights, which each provide 300-watt/seconds of power. While that’s not going to work if you’re shooting in a big studio with large subject matter such as automobiles or elephants, it’s more than adequate for most basic portrait sessions.
It’s been a while since either of us had shot with monolights but it was easy to quickly see their benefits. With both the head and the power supply built right into Adorama’s compact stand-alone Flashpoint II unit, there are fewer cords and clutter as with a dedicated power pack system. The trade-off is they’re not as powerful, and recycle time was considerably slower than what you’d get with a Profoto or Broncolor pack: We averaged about 1 to 3 seconds when using the Flashpoint II 620M monolights on battery power; and around a second on AC power.
Some inexpensive monolight systems don’t offer an audible beep to tell you that the lights are ready to fire again. That’s not the case with the Flashpoint II set-up, which chirped out beeps on both AC and battery power. I always find that along with telling me that the pack is ready to fire again, the beep alerts the model to get set. Mostly psychological, yes, but important.
Though using the Flashpoint II kit with the small battery packs was surprisingly easy and effective—more about this later—the modeling lamp automatically shuts down to save power. While this is somewhat understandable, it’d be nice to offer an option where you can get a few seconds of modeling light if you want it under battery power. When plugged in, the modeling lamp gives you 150-watts of adjustable power.
In general, the Flashpoint II units offered very good control, with stepless output down to 1/32 power. We tested the set-up with a light meter and felt the dial-based output adjustments were more precise the higher you went. At full power, it was spot on.
The lights have built-in slaves that can be turned on if you want to fire them cordlessly either by another flash or the strobe on top of your camera. Otherwise, you can connect the (included) sync cord to your camera’s PC outlet and fire way. There’s also an optional PC Adapter for your camera’s hot shoe.
The Flashpoint II units themselves are well constructed, made from metal and polycarbonate with convenient handles on the back for carrying. The knobs and switches felt solid and the units ship with parabolic reflectors, which is a nice touch. The 620M monolights have built-in cooling fans that were whisper quiet.
There are also four gels—red, blue, yellow, and frost—and two different honeycomb grids. The two 40-inch umbrellas are effective and while the light stands were solid, when they’re fully extended, they get a little flimsy.
The metallic snoot—I love saying “snoot”—was also a nice extra for funneling the light into a spot on your subject or a backdrop. Barn doors do not ship with the kit but can be purchased as an option.
POWER TO GO
Set-up of the entire Flashpoint II lighting kit is a complete no-brainer: It took us no more than 20 minutes. As mentioned previously, getting everything into the included bag takes a little more time and it helps to have a jigsaw-puzzle-inclined mind to get the pieces to fit. When fully loaded, the bag weighs a healthy 36 pounds.
The two NiMH battery packs—one for each monolight—are probably the most impressive technology in the whole kit. Each one weighs just 2.65 pounds and they can be slotted into small, included canvas bags, which can either be slung over your shoulder or across a light stand to provide a convenient power source.
It took approximately three hours to fully charge the batteries but we got close to 150 full power pops with them. (Adorama rates them at a 100 pops but we easily beat that.) Needless to say, if you dial back the power you can cycle through several hundreds pops and you can also swap in extra battery packs ($60 extra per pack) if you need them. If you’re feeling extra mobile, a supplied cigarette-lighter charger/adapter will let you power up the battery packs from the front seat of your Buick.
After shooting with the Flashpoint II set-up using the battery, we could see why the kit is being marketed to wedding photographers. If you’re doing any sort of on location portraits of the bride and groom or family, getting the kit up and running is nearly hassle-free and the reliable and impressive battery power means you can shoot comfortably for quite a while.
But the kit could also be used for location fashion photography—as long as there’s enough ambient light left for backgrounds (the 300-watt-second strobes are probably too weak to light a whole scene)— or outdoor portraits and even headshots.
Admittedly, the crowded streets of a big city are not the best place to set up the Flashpoint II kit but it is possible. Personally, we’d stick to small strobe-type lighting for these types of “guerilla” fashion, portrait or street shoots. Attracting too much attention or getting hassled about not having a permit because you have what looks like a high-end lighting kit can be stressful. But that’s the price you pay for owning Adorama’s pro-looking set-up even if it does cost less than most digital SLRs.
THE BOTTOM LINE
We spend so much time reviewing high-priced photo gear that is, occasionally, overpriced, it’s nice to find a low-cost imaging product that offers genuine value. For under $750, Adorama’s Flashpoint II 620M Portrait Wedding Monolight kit gives you enough lighting gear to outfit an entire portrait studio. Better yet, the robust but lightweight battery packs that come with the kit mean you can take the entire set-up on the road for location lighting when there’s no AC outlet in sight. Most importantly, the quality of light output from the Flashpoint II 620M system was excellent for portraits: clean with attractive color value and generally consistent results, particularly at the medium to full power settings. If there were ever a starter lighting kit tailor made for tough economic times, this would be it.
Adorama Flashpoint II 620M Portrait Wedding Monolight Kit
Pros: Great value for an all-in-one starter lighting kit; attractive light output with good color value; easy-to-carry, lightweight battery packs let you take the monolights on location; well over 100 full power pops on battery power; helpfully long power cords.
Cons: 300-watt-seconds of power in monolights might not be enough for large studio shoots; lighting bag packs tightly with entire kit; light stands feel flimsy when fully extended.